Engagement has become an annoying buzzword, too often a byword for trendy initiatives designed to obtain extra funding. At Alexander Shelley’s latest concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, however, one saw a true sense of engagement: Shelley’s very real (and longstanding) desire to communicate with the audience by way of informative and witty introductions, never condescending but always showing an infectious passion for the subject, was reciprocated by a clear audience response. They were engaged, they responded and the listening experience was improved by Shelley’s introductions.

Alexander Shelley
© Rémi Thériault

Of course, unusual programmes tend to require introductions more than events with the concert warhorses and an evening of Delius, Walton, Lili Boulanger and Coleridge-Taylor was a feast of comparative rarities. Coleridge-Taylor, whose work is performed increasingly these days, based his Symphonic Variations on an African Air on the plantation song I’m troubled in mind, a demonstration of his interest in his African heritage. Shelley’s brisk, tidy pacing let the quieter moments shine, the cellos generating a rich mahogany sound like swirls of cinnamon, while early woodwind playing was vinegary against the velvety weight of the combined string section. However, despite the obvious flair in the orchestral writing, the piece did not linger long in the memory. 

Delius was inspired to write his Piano Concerto in C minor  by his friend Grieg’s own success in the genre, but the work had a troubled life and Delius made extensive revisions. The version heard here was the final revision in the form of the Beecham edition and was performed by Mark Bebbington, a specialist in English music. It was a joy to hear. Bebbington’s playing early on had a probing, tentative feel to it, a humanity within the black and whites. Dynamic use of the pedals gave a rich aural palette, the individual notes just about holding definition without being subsumed. Some glorious playing from the woodwind, floating over the strings, gave an air of the crepuscular, in perfect harmony with Bebbington’s approach. Shelley’s pacing, again, was extremely well-judged, bringing an almost Straussian sense of heft to the work. Bebbington and Shelley made a compelling case for more frequent outings of the work. 

Next, a brief trip across the Channel – no queues for us on this musical holiday – for two small works by Lili Boulanger, the young French prodigy who died aged just 24 years old. There were two clashing colours and moods in D’un matin de printemps and D’un soir triste; light and dark, joy and sorrow. The abiding sense of the first, a miniature of a work, was a dewy warmth, violins and harp glistening, the whole orchestra throbbing with energy.  The second was slower and frailer; Shelley kept tight control over the dynamic, leading to a reflective mood, perhaps less bleak than some interpretations. We were given some strong viola and cello playing, balanced against the poignant harp writing. 

By way of finale, Shelley took us to the cinema for Walton’s Suite from Henry V. The music for the film was deemed to be superlative by no less a figure than Laurence Olivier himself, who played the title role in the film. The suite, in Muir Matheson’s arrangement, is in five movements, played with cinematic verve by the RPO. Clean brass in the Overture, velvety strings in the Passacaglia, punch and heat for the Battle and tenderness for Touch Her Soft Lips and Part. The last, largely directed by Shelley’s left hand, brought to life Walton’s vivid flair for the subject, a reminder of his wide-ranging talent.